Democratise Or Die (Literally)! Thoughts On Sustainability Part 4
12. Several Green New Deal plans have been divulged in the Western world, and some of them are rather good. However, despite the fact that they contain possible solutions to urgent and general human interests, their odds of being passed and put in practice by legislative and government bodies are minimal.
We citizens are used to this paradoxical state of things, no doubt, but let me say that this particular case is quite remarkable. It seems to make less sense than usual given the catastrophic proportions of what may come. That is why, more than ever, there’s a pressing need to question the mechanisms that make up the functioning of our social structures, states and supranational organisations. We can’t resign ourselves to a few “green” patches here and there.
13. First, so-called democratic systems are modelled as a politics of parties. A politics based on competition in which most players are focused on short-term strategies to win and maintain power in each electoral cycle. And short-term interests and the need to discredit opponents make unlikely the elaboration of consensual long-term environmental and social equality plans such as those of Green New Deals.
Second, we all know that behind, but also infiltrating, the circus of contending parties lies a network of de facto powers. Fossil-fuel extractors and dealers, insurance companies, the arms industry, banks, corporations, the financial sector, controlled media, big fortunes, etc., with agendas of accumulation that entail exploitation in the Global South, employment insecurity in wealthy countries, wars and pollution.
Exactly. It is unfettered capital accumulation, the systemic pursuit of growth at any cost, what has been devastating lands, exhausting resources, destroying ecosystems, fostering a disposability-based consumption and emitting greenhouse gases.
This pursuit is also what has sustained and created the immense inequalities that reinforce the power of the ones on top to keep accumulating profits and wealth. Despite its mask of anarchic working, the unfettered market is an oligopolistic system where a number of fortunes control very relevant economic flows and, therefore, everybody’s life conditions.
And it feels almost unnecessary to mention that, with the large amounts of money at their disposal, oligopolies can and do create tailor-made parties, politicians, institutions and governments. Or simply “buy” them and turn them into extensions or puppets.
We are talking, then, of organisations that disempower us in different and important ways. One of those ways being the private creation of public, global environmental problems. Other being the private generation of public, global inequalities. The third one being the private, self-serving control of public governance bodies.
Despite what greenwashing marketing have wanted us to believe, capitalism is indisputably opposed to sustainability. Despite what third-way politicians have wanted us to believe, capitalism is indisputably opposed to democracy. Despite what constitutions, media and politicians have wanted us to believe, democracy is not compatible with a system of political parties.
In short, true democracies are yet to come.
14. While lots of attention are paid to deadlines and percentages regarding clean energy, emissions and employment (all of them essential matters), the issue of democratisation seems secondary, if it appears at all, in media coverage of Green New Deal proposals. Moreover, the recipe for democratisation is different in different documents. We’ve been provided with a number of (compatible) possibilities, including among others (1) the combination of public ownership and cooperative local management of water and energy, (2) public ownership of transport infrastructures and investment banks, (3) workers having important says regarding the resulting profits of their work and the direction of companies, (4) the design of sustainability projects by locals, (5) the cooperativisation of private companies and banks, and (6) municipalist city councils sharing ideas, methods and results through internet networks.
Frankly, I think that, due to the distribution of power outlined above, democratisation is key for durable and truly “green” sustainability strategies. Without more egalitarian power shares, particular interests could halt the development of these strategies and even their setting in motion; or, as it is already happening, adopt green transition as a market niche, following the logic of capitalism. That is why I also think that we can’t expect all the policies included in Green New Deals to be developed at the same time and pace. There are great chances that economic redistribution and decarbonising projects would be gradually allowed to become a reality AFTER, and not exactly in parallel to, progresses in democracy. To put it differently, it is democratisation what can shun and limit the dominance of great capitals so that sustainable sustainability plans are implemented.
My ideal here goes beyond the pathways pointed at by the most progressive Green New Deals, which, all told, are significantly transformative themselves. I advocate a form of RADICAL democratisation consisting in a transfer of decision-making to a network of expert-assisted assemblies of citizens at diverse organisational levels. Perfectly compatible, by the way, with the aforementioned democratising measures.
This would be a deliberative direct democracy where (1) political representatives would have been substituted by citizens and (2) choices wouldn’t stem from the aggregation of unevaluated individual votes, but from informed deliberation. And, due to the fact that, beyond the management of very local issues, the simultaneous participation of every single citizen in assemblies is impossible, (3) decision-making participants would be periodically selected by lot.
But not any lot would do. Members of minorities or traditionally unheard collectives would enjoy greater representation to make sure that their needs are not sidestepped. The same would happen with those most affected by the decisions being made, as long as the result of the decision process could imply the reduction of their quality of life to levels below a reasonable minimum. These collectives should also have their own assemblies and particular veto rights (I thank the great Iris Marion Young for this idea). And, finally, and especially in the case of wealthy countries, citizens of vulnerable countries should be included in some way to avoid imperialist practices, to promote the repair of historical debts, to share information and experiences and to strengthen multilateral collaboration in a world where the greatest problems can only be solved by global strategies.
Well… I warned you this was a radical approach…
15. A debate about the correct model of governance for democracies has gained force lately, with leading voices challenging the system of representative democracy and finding inspiration in Ancient Athens (but not only), authors such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, contemporary experimental processes and, to some extent, the formation of juries for trials. The resulting proposal is that of a system of assemblies composed by randomly selected and periodically replaced citizens called sortition or demarchy, in which, on one hand, assemblies would be advised by specialists on the matters discussed and, on the other, their discussions would be moderated by experts in deliberation.
I support this model because the more inclusive and deliberative decision-making is, the less power will lie in the hands of private interests and, therefore, the closer we will be to a real rule by the people (democracy). Just think about it:
a. Random selection would imply the avoidance of party interests because nobody would be expecting re-election. The same would happen with single politicians wanting, above all, to hold power positions.
b. It would be the end of political castes unrelated with the rest of the citizenship.
c. Economic powers would lose influence on political decisions because the distribution of power sortition entails would: first, make it impossible for greedy people to participate in decision-making for a long time; second, and given that the wealthiest are a minority, reflect their minority condition also in the constitution of assemblies; and, three, make bribery practically impossible because it would have to implicate the entire population.
d. The absence of interests in keeping power would allow paying attention to important long-term problems and solutions, such as the environmental emergency and the appropriate measures to be taken.
e. Competition in institutional politics would be very reduced as a consequence of a and d, while collaborative attitudes would take hold. After all, the goal would be to reach agreements, instead of forcing and emphasising disagreements to maintain party or faction identities and mobilising voters through rage and hate.
f. These assemblies would be representative of the diversity in societies. There would be young and old, women and men, non-conforming sexual identities and orientations, more and less well-off, rural and urbanites, different ethnicities, different kinds of jobs, different geographical locations, people from the communities most affected by the environmental crisis, etc. This too would make the system more democratic. Furthermore, the presence of expert facilitators would guarantee that everybody is equally heard, including the people that usually don’t have the chance n/or the skills for political discussion.
g. Deliberation for informed decisions would empower citizens in a way that even economic redistribution can’t. People would cease to perceive themselves as passive receivers of proposals and policies. They would no longer be ignorant objects of manipulation by easy slogans, personalisms and false promises. Instead, they would engage in the complexities of problems and variety of views from different experiences and social locations.
h. Collaborative reasoning would tend to reduce the influence of visceralisms and to develop empathy and communication skills.
i. The tendency in these assemblies would be to substitute growth as the leading value in our societies for that of a good life, because, besides the fact that, given c, the opportunities for private accumulation of capital through political decisions would be smaller and smaller, the acknowledgement that continued growth aggravates inequalities and the environmental crisis would be easier thanks to a, b, c, d, f, g and h.
j. Due to i, unfettered accumulation of capital in private hands could be eventually forbidden. People would cease to be a medium for alien ends. The economy would serve people instead of people serving the economy, and the right Green New Deal (a non-capitalist one) could be chosen.
k. This system would encourage a culture of informed deliberation and collaboration, just like the current system does the opposite. Participation in public debates would probably be larger and of increasing quality, and the process of collective learning (which is already happening, mostly due to the work of scientists and organisations of civil society) would be accelerated and expanded.
l. The idealist in me thinks that such a systemic change would allow humans to realise how creative we can be and how better we can do by using collective intelligence.
m. This would be the best way to avoid, if a Green New Deal is ever accepted and set in motion, an undesirable modification or cancellation with the formation of new governments or changes in the composition of governance bodies.
o. For more info: https://www.sortitionfoundation.org/. Don’t miss the TED conference by Brett Hennig, but remember my specifications regarding disadvantaged collectives.
16. I must admit, however, that, though I can see state-level parliaments functioning this way, it is harder for me to imagine some prerogatives of the executive power, such as choices that must be taken very fast, dealt with by this kind of assemblies. So perhaps politicians wouldn’t disappear completely, but they would be controlled by citizen-made laws.
17. I envision a gradual substitution of our current order by the new one, starting with assemblies constituted to decide on specific issues. And this precisely is one of the three demands on the draft by the much talked-about UK-originated activist group Extinction Rebellion: the creation of “a Citizens’ Assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice,” the members of which “will be randomly selected from across the country.” According to them, this assembly “will empower citizens to take the lead and politicians to follow with less fear of political backlash.” Or, in other words, a citizens’ assembly would probably have the boldness politicians lack due to the way our system works, and would exert pressure on them while, at the same time, provide them with a good excuse to support long-term measures.
If this happened, it would set a wonderful precedent to help institute and extend sortition (and inclusiveness and collaboration and deliberation), fostering this way the durability of the plan. One not-so-small step for a country, one giant leap for human kind.